May 20, 2016

Suffering Well: Trusting God’s Absolute Sovereignty

by Mike Riccardi

Several years ago, Justin Taylor linked to a moving and encouraging account of a pastor coming to grips with the fact that his second child, like his first, would be born with spina bifida. Amazingly, this man has found great comfort in rejecting the common notion that God will merely use this bad situation for good, rather than the biblical truth that He has ordained it for His glory and His people’s good.

Stories like these continue to confirm the reality that we must prepare ourselves to undergo suffering and trials righteously. We need to learn how to suffer well. And, as I’ve said over the past couple weeks, the way we do that is by being equipped with a theology of suffering while not yet in the midst of a particular trial.

And to that end we’ve been looking to Jeremiah’s experience with devastating suffering at the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC, and hoping to glean some lessons on how to respond to suffering righteously. First, we learned that a righteous response to others’ suffering includes suffering along with our brothers and sisters who suffer. Secondly, we learned that we must acknowledge the role of sin in our suffering. Today, we find a third lesson from Jeremiah’s righteous response to suffering: we must acknowledge, and trust in, God’s absolute sovereignty even in the unpleasant and painful circumstances.

No Solace in Secondary Causes

One of the things that is striking throughout the book of Lamentations is that Jeremiah finds no solace in attributing the destruction of Yahweh’s covenant people to secondary causes. Rather, he attributes the agonizing desolation of Israel to Yahweh Himself. He declares that “Yahweh has caused her grief” (Lam 1:5) and has “inflicted” this pain “in His fierce anger” (Lam 1:12); it is He who has knit together this yoke, who has given her into the hands of her enemies, who has rejected her, and has trodden her as in a winepress (Lam 1:14-15). You’ll notice that he does not speak of God merely “allowing” such devastation. Instead, he speaks of God actively accomplishing that which He had purposed to do:

  • Lamentations 2:17 – Yahweh has done what He purposed; He has accomplished His word Which He commanded from days of old. He has thrown down without sparing, And He has caused the enemy to rejoice over you; He has exalted the might of your adversaries.
  • Lamentations 4:11 – Yahweh has accomplished His wrath, He has poured out His fierce anger; And He has kindled a fire in Zion Which has consumed its foundations (cf. Lam 2:1–7).
  • Lamentations 3:37–38, 43–44 – Who is there who speaks and it comes to pass, Unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High That both good and ill go forth? … You have covered Yourself with anger And pursued us; You have slain and have not spared. You have covered Yourself with a cloud So that no prayer can pass through.

And again, as we did with the discussion on acknowledging sin, we have to be careful not to draw a direct parallel in this situation, and perhaps in many other situations. In Jeremiah’s case, God is explicitly inflicting punishment. This may or may not be so when we suffer. But even if He’s not explicitly punishing or disciplining, it is still wrong to locate the origin of these unpleasant events somewhere outside of God.

Job’s case makes that clear. He did not attribute His suffering to immediate causes, but always recognized that God was sovereign in his afflictions (Job 1:21; 2:10; 12:9–10). And God commended him for that (Job 2:3; 42:7). Lest you think Job was somehow confused about who caused his sufferings since he was never privy to the opening interaction between God and Satan, the inspired text of the narrator of the book of Job agrees at the end of the book: “…and they consoled [Job] and comforted him for all the adversities that Yahweh had brought on him.” Get that. Not, “…all the adversities that Satan had brought,” and not even “…all the adversities that Yahweh allowed.” These were adversities that Yahweh himself had brought upon Job.

Don’t Destroy Your Comfort

The lesson for us, then, is that when we suffer, we should not seek to save God from His sovereignty. If we do that, we cut the legs out from under the solid, robust theology of God’s absolute sovereignty that we depend on and cherish so much in those very times of suffering. To try to soften God’s involvement with suffering by reducing it to a mere permission rather than a definite ordinance is to weaken the spine-strengthening power that is supplied by Romans 8:28. To insist that God merely allows evil and suffering rather than intentionally and wisely brings it about in order to glorify Himself, and thus most greatly bless His people, destroys the very theology of sovereign grace that is (1) such a comfort to our souls in such troubling times and is (2) precisely that for which God means to receive glory and honor.

God means to be glorified in being recognized as the ultimate Mover and Determiner of all things. Let us not seek to rob Him of that. For it is our “heavenly peace, divinest comfort” to know that “whate’er befall me, Jesus doeth all things well.”

I am Yahweh, and there is no other,
The One forming light and creating darkness,
Causing well-being and creating calamity;
I am Yahweh who does all these.
– Isaiah 45:7 –

 Who is there who speaks and it comes to pass,
unless the Lord has commanded it?
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
that both good and ill go forth?
– Lamentations 3:37–38 –

Mike Riccardi

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Mike is the Pastor of Local Outreach Ministries at Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. He also teaches Evangelism at The Master's Seminary.
  • Vickey Singleton

    So true! Five years ago my husband died and went to be with the Lord. The truth that “God does all things well” has been so overwhelmingly manifested through His sovereign and loving care for me. Has it been happy and pretty? No, not by the world’s standards, but I would not trade a moment of it. Everything that I’ve experienced before and after Steve’s death has obviously been so orchestrated for my good and above all so glorifies our wonderful and glorious God and Savior! I so thank all of the wonderful people God used to show me this truth and give me a heart’s desire for Him! But above all, I thank and praise Him for so lovingly using every means to show His love to me–most especially the suffering that served to draw me ever closer to Him! So true that He “causes all things to work together for good to those who love God” and that great good is being “conformed to the image of His Son.”

    • Jane Hildebrand

      Beautiful testimony, Vickey! Thank you.

    • Amen, Vickey. Praise God for the wise and loving way He deals with us in His sovereignty.

  • Jane Hildebrand

    This truth of God’s sovereignty is why I am so offended by the “health and wealth” movement. By attributing our suffering to satan or our lack of faith, they empty God of His sovereignty in sending the suffering in order that our faith be made manifest. For where else can faith shine more brightly than in a hospital room or next to a fresh grave? Which will get the attention of an unbelieving world more, witnessing our faith and hope within our suffering or seeing the fish sticker on our Lexus? God forbid we mishandle these opportunities to bring Him glory.

    • Well-said, Jane. The world is not impressed with Christians who praise Jesus when everything in their life is going easy. But they have no explanation for those who are so satisfied by Christ that they can lose everything this life has to offer and call it gain, because they gain Him (Phil 1:19-21; 3:7-8). Christ will be magnified in our bodies, whether by life or by death, because we can say, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

  • Fibber MaGee

    Question, with regards to allowing vs ordaining. Why can’t it be both dependant on the situation?

    • It’s probably going to depend on your definition of both words (allowing and ordaining). In their truest sense, ordination makes God the agent and permission sees Him as only a passive participant (maybe even observer). In the sense often used in this discussion, permission is appealed to in order to absolve God from the responsibility of bringing about evil or suffering that is denoted by the concept of ordaining. I try to explain why permissive language is an unnecessary explanatory device in the second of a three-part series on God’s decree, which you can read here:

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